I was raised to be a bigot in the ways that were common to nearly every white southerner of my generation, having been born in the mid 1950s and sent to school during the era of 1860s.
I grew up in the segregated south and was part of the generation that saw the ending of separate schools for blacks and whites. In my childhood I heard adults talk openly about their disgust at the notion of sharing bathrooms with black people. On the playground I chanted vicious rhymes about “niggers.” It would be easy to say that my heart and mind, even as a child, rebelled against such practices, but to make such a claim would be a lie. Because I was a child, I accepted what I heard. Only later, when black and white schools were consolidated in rural North Carolina, did I come to question these early lessons.
I say that nearly every white person of my era, in my place, was trained in this same bigotry, but in my heart I believe that the training was common to all. In the same way, I say “white southerner” when in my heart I believe that these teachings were common to all Americans.
I have good friends who discuss racism, white people who are constantly sharing information about this or that event in which a black person figures as a victim or a white person has made some outrageous comment about people of one color or another. These days, such discussions often take place on social media, or after a story like the shooting of Trayvon Martin becomes widespread.
These are well meaning people who believe they are doing their part to end an evil that has been with us for far too many centuries already, a murderous prejudice that shows no sign of ending in any future one can foresee.
Yet I have rarely heard any white person say the words, “I am a racist.”
In my own head I have confessed to racism, and I have made this statement about myself at times in the past when I was involved in a conversation about black-white relations. I have confessed to my own racism in mixed company, when there were black people present to force the discussion of oppression, and onto whom the conversation was assigned as a kind of burden, as if they were to absolve me of my sin.
An article that I have read in various forms, in print and online, reads something like, “Ten things a white person should not say to a black person when discussing racism.” But never have I seen any guide to how white people should talk to each other, nor have I found the slightest hint that it is the responsibility of white people to have this conversation with one another, about ourselves.
Racism only exists when there are black people in the room, or this seems to be our message. The racist is always somebody else. The bigot is someone obvious, like members of the Aryan Nation, or followers of the Ku Klux Klan. Why do we refuse to understand that our first job is to see inside ourselves?
So often I hear white people say, “I’m not a racist,” as if that blanket declaration removes all the training, all the programming, that has come into us throughout the years of our childhood.
The truth cannot set you free unless you face it, and what I mean is that all white people from my generation down to the present have some level of programming that says white people shaped the world, white people are the authors of civilization, and white people are and should continue to be the natural leaders of humankind. This lesson is the beginning of racism, since it sets the white race above the rest.
Even in the sharing of information about the victimization of black people, even in our most earnest declarations that all people are equal no matter what skin they wear, so many of us are missing the point in an essential way. White people need to talk to white people about our racism, and the first conversation should be face to face with a mirror, each of us looking into our own face and understanding the truth. I am the problem. I am the racist. Maybe I can begin to recover if I take that path.
No one can erase racist programming that is ingrained deep into the mind, early in childhood. Like the addict, the racist must learn to recover from this training, and must realize that recovery will never end. I am a racist now, and will always have that flaw inside me, but I do not have to act on it, and I can change the way I live. We don’t argue about whether white dogs are better than black dogs. Why do we think color makes such a difference when it comes to human beings?